Organised crime gangs moving into counterfeiting, says Europol

Man offering bribeCounterfeiting of goods is rising up the ranks of illegal activities carried out by organised criminal gangs in Europe, according to Europol.

The international law enforcement agency's annual Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA) notes that organised criminal gangs (OCGs) in Europe are turning to counterfeiting as a lower risk activity to their traditional focus on narcotics and human trafficking.

All told there are around 3,600 OCGs operating in Europe, with a "new breed" emerging that are "no longer defined by their nationality or specialisation in one area of crime", according to Europol's director Rob Wainwright.

The shift in focus is attributed the current economic crisis in Europe and changes in consumer demand, with reduced spending power - and easy distribution over the Internet - inspiring OCGs to enter the commodity counterfeiting sector.

The 2013 SOCTA notes that there has been a sharp increase in seizures of counterfeit goods violating health and safety regulations, including foods and beverages, body care articles, medicines, electrical household items and toys, and these are increasingly being manufactured in EU member states.

Among the cases cited by Europol include counterfeit clothes with harmful levels of formaldehyde, fake running shoes which expose wearers to illegal levels of phthalates and mercury, and illicit pesticides with the potential to harm both the environment and consumers.

"Trading in counterfeit products is a relatively low risk activity, involving minimal penalties whilst providing high profits, and will increasingly attract OCGs previously involved in other crime areas," says the report, adding: "Counterfeiters take advantage of the economic crisis to expand their business and diversify their product range."

In 2011, counterfeit and substandard goods with health and safety concerns accounted for 28.6 per cent of all seized falsified goods in Europe, up from just 14.5 per cent a year earlier.

Other growth areas for Europe's OCGs include facilitation of illegal immigration, defrauding of the VAT tax scheme, synthetic drug production and trafficking, cybercrime and money laundering.

"The fight against organised crime has big implications for the EU's ability to secure an effective economic recovery," said Wainwright. 

"Through a recent expansion of the 'black market' and notable developments in fraudulent activity criminal groups are denying governments, businesses, and citizens billions of euros each year in lost tax receipts, profits, and private income."

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